French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault presented Kerry with the insignia of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor
at a ceremony in Paris in which he recalled Kerry's family connections with France and praised his diplomatic endeavors.
Accepting the award, Kerry said he was "humbled" and that it reflected the special relationship between France and the United States, their long history and shared values.
He also spoke about the achievements the two countries had jointly realized during his time as secretary of state, including helping to negotiate a deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions
and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Kerry, whose mother was born in France, said he accepted the award as a reminder of the duty to keep working for their common ideals, shared aspirations and the rule of law.
"We have a lot of work to do in that regard because there are dangerous currents of authoritarian populism, and no part of the world remembers better what happens when difficult economies mix with sectarian exploitation, with nationalism and fear," he said.
"We really need to be careful going forward and think hard about the choices that we face. ... We are pursuing diplomacy because the world needs the values that have been espoused by the United States and France since our inception."
Kerry also warned against isolationism, saying: "In this day and age, folks, we cannot confuse national pride with national self-sufficiency or think that exclusionary policies are somehow going to solve the problems that we face. ... In the 21st century, every country needs partners in order to prosper. None of us can move alone."
At the same time, though, Kerry said he was optimistic about the future and that great social progress was being made around the world.
Ayrault said Kerry had stood by France through a series of recent terror attacks, had engaged in tireless global diplomacy and was an important ally in the fight against extremism.
Kerry, a French speaker and lover of France, shared the values held dear by his country, Ayrault said, and was "certainly the most French" of senior US figures today.
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte and is France's highest military and civilian decoration.